“If” is a funny word… If we hadn’t have stopped for lunch, If we had’ve stopped for a swim, If we hadn’t have seen the truck crash. If we didn’t stop for dinner the night before.
If, If, If. All things turned out well though and after our drama we met up with a couple of great teams of guys and basically spent the rest of our trip with them. Conversations about rules and laws in our “Mongvoy” cracked us up…but rule one is we never talk about the mongvoy…um….apparently rule 2 is too.
We woke up the next morning and spent half the day just doing…well nothing really. A Kiwi/ Aussie team in a tiny, little Fiat were having problems so we just all sat around, getting to know each other. Imagine this: A beautiful, big, unknown city to explore and we sat in a car park, being chased by the sun and playing cards. It was a great morning, but the decision was made and we had to dump the boys and head towards the Kazakhstan border.
Now up to now we have had absolutely no problems with the police or military. Actually quite the opposite: they have been extremely curious and absolutely hospitable to us at all times. We had had so many warnings about them and had made it so far thinking that people had given us the wrong information. Until now: about a kilometer from the border is a stop sign. Just one. Sitting on a straight piece of road. No crossing. Nothing there. Just a stop sign. I was driving and thought it was a warning for the border. Until the whistle blew and we were called over to a large, uniformed, mustached gentleman sitting by the side of the road in a rather large important looking police building. “Why you not stop?” were his first words. This was going to be interesting. He had also pulled over one of the other drivers from the convoy. He then explained to us that we should have stopped and the fine was $100 USD. Each. Or he would take our licenses. I got the idea that this wasn’t how things got done and started to explain that we hadn’t seen the stop sign as it was covered by a bus. “In Australia you stop at sign?” Ooh he was a clever one. So we took a different tactics. “This money is for charity, for children, and you want to take it?” He asked us to “speak normal”. But dropped the price to $50 for both. I knew we had him then and we hit him hard. I asked to borrow his pen, carefully writing down his badge number and then asked him for his name. “You just want a bribe, you bastard…” Surprised he wrote it down. I then explained I would pay him the $40, that the fee had come down to, but would be in touch with the embassy explaining what had happened and asked for a receipt. While the other people in the office laughed our mustached friend said “Go!” and we grabbed our gear and money and drove onto the border, also laughing.
This was the first Major city border crossing we had come to and it was huge. So many people and cars pushing, shoving, jostling for position, pleading, weeping, trying to get through to the other side. We actually played leap frog with the cars, using them to let each other into the traffic and to make sure nobody pushed in. After the fast and efficient Kyrgyzstan border officials let us through we were on a bridge across a river of no-mans land with hundreds of people all pushing towards the Kazakhstan gates. At one point men with balaclavas and guns pushed the people to the side, scary, threatening and surreal, while the cars squeezed through the throng. We even had to hold our mirrors back to get through. The people seemed to be used to it, though they still tried. The rest was fairly easy and we were off into the Kazakhstan desert on the way to Almaty where we found an old Soviet style hotel in our price range and dropped off our gear. Massive halls filled these floors, while small rooms and smaller showers made up the spaces. Steak was on our minds and we found a good steakhouse and had the best meal of the trip to that point, with a couple of beers of course, served to us by a very beautiful girl! What a day.
Big Bear Energy drinks…apparently they had samples?
Sleeping with the ghosts of communism we hit our beds, the Kiwi/ Aussie team caught up with us during the night.
Now a big thing on this part of the trip was that the boys had heard rumours that there was a Micky D’s in Almaty…we were all very excited. What we found was a McBurger joint across the road from our hotel. Not MacDonald’s but McBurgers. Oh I laughed. Funnily enough it was really a good meal and we all enjoyed the little break. From here we drove a long a dusty drive in Kazakhstan and let me tell you there really isn’t much there. The only remarkable thing was that the Fiat team were stopped by the police, but fast thinking, they used the same trick we had the day before and took down there details, the police let them go! We found a great camp and watched satellites and shooting stars look down at us.
There just isn’t much in Kazakhstan. The people are extremely friendly and helpful, but there is just endless roads of nothing to see. We ended up in a town called Argos. A depressing ruined city of grays and browns. The only bright note here were the people, who came out to see the weird and wonderful cars and people from so far away. A few men came over asking us for drugs and money, I just pointed at his friends golden teeth and motioned for him to rip them out. “Plenty of money there…” They all cracked up! We stocked up on food while talking to a local young girl. Her English was great and she spoke t us of her people and town. Argos is situated about 150 km from where the Russians used to explode nuclear weapons. Ryan quipped in a Russian accent “T’is lucky you came in the summer… the winter…it’s a little depressing…” The city looked as though it had been part of some sort of experiment and we all agreed to head on another hour ‘til we found a good camp. Another night of satellites and stars and we slept not knowing whether the grounds may be safe or not. But the next morning a farmer saw us and came over to greet us with his friendly dogs. He had lost both of his legs in a motorcycle accident, but still found his way onto a horse and looked after his flock. Very friendly and warming though it caused me to wonder if there was a complete person in Kazakhstan. Most people seemed to be without something: Feet, legs, fingers and hands, teeth and other body parts seemed to go missing.
The next morning we drove through to Semeh, a surprisingly modern and lively city with modern conveniences and truly nice people. We stopped at a café and ate way too much before finding a hotel around the corner. A nice young man came over to us, explaining he was studying in London, and would help us if we needed a guide for the day. After a much needed shower we hit the Semeh streets looking for a night out before being shown a place that looked something like a wedding chapel. We had a great night of dancing and drinking cheap vodka before the boys got into a little trouble with the manager. Apparently one of them was dancing with the boss’s girlfriend and he wasn’t happy. I told them all to leave. My thinking is that ten drunken guys is a bit aggressive and could be read wrong by anyone, causing more problems. But one guy trying to pay is what they want. The boys all grudgingly left and I fixed up the bill, knowing full well I was in a bit of a hairy spot. But my stupid big smile and wad of cash got me outside. The boys had all been hiding in trees and behind cars waiting for me! I explained my theory and we went home and crashed for the night. But not for me…the combination of too much and too much cheap vodka had caused my stomach to turn to water… you can imagine the rest. Funnily enough I had just been saying the day before that I hadn’t been sick on the trip. It was a long night and I wasn’t the only one…
The next morning we gingerly packed up and headed for the Russian border. There were a few little stops by the side of the road as we needed to clear our, let’s say, heads, on several occasions. The Russian border was fairly straight forward except that when the lady asked Josh and I for our passports, Josh doubled over clutching his stomach and pleaded “toilet”, causing both of the serious faced border police to crack up and point. The young lady continued to laugh and couldn’t at all keep a straight face through the entire 15 minute process. This wasn’t helped by her partner dropping comments, and she almost had it together when Josh turned back up, a look of serenity on his face, and she cracked up again, stamping us through and letting us go. We were in Russia!!
Borders are a funny thing. They are there for a reason and I get that. But we had been through some good and bad borders. And the only reason I say bad is because of the time it had taken. There had been no real hassles, even the Turkemen lady and her obsessive need for crisp new US bills, wasn’t that tough. Just time consuming. And we only had one more to go!!
The first town in Russia was not a good advertisement for the country, a bleak, grey, broken industrial town, looking like something from the end of the world. But this all opened up into some beautiful fields and plains and great scenery. Massive combine harvesters weaving through fields in herds of up to 12, criss-crossing as they worked to complete their work to get home, and continuing into the night. We were having problems with the fiat again and ended up towing it into Barnaul, getting there after dark. A crazy drive for Craig in the much smaller car as he studied the back of the ambulance for signs of the road to come from about 10 feet. We arrived in Barnaul around 9pm, tired and hungry, got some petrol and found our way into the city, looking for a hotel.
What we found was subway! And foot-longs all round. And it tasted like…Subway! So nice to have the familiar after such a long drive! The extremely helpful, English speaking attendant helped us amazingly and could show pretty much every other Subway staff member I have ever met how to treat people. We savored our midnight meal and made our way out to find a hotel. But this was proving extremely difficult as most of the hotels seemed full. After consulting a local Madame, yes, you know what I mean, and getting directions in Russian, we headed for a hotel. Unfortunately the policeman we consulted, who loved my phone, couldn’t help us and we ended up just driving out of town a bit, crossing a bridge (with Ford signs on it) and setting up camp in a field. As we pulled in the ambulance engine died and the Fiat didn’t do so well either. But tired we slept to the sounds of the rumbling trucks.
The next morning was a fight with the ambulance and fiat to get them started. One of the new team mates, Connor, is an absolute legend and by the end of the trip had fixed every car at least three times. We managed to get the Ambo limping towards town and looked for the Ford dealership, finding it with the help of some very helpful locals and the police. Now I have had some problems with Ford Australia, and the major Ford dealership in Newcastle, but let me tell you the Russians have them beat. Completely. We found the dealership and I walked in, grubby as usual, and asked a simple question to the curious eyes. “I don’t suppose anyone speaks English?” Laughter rolled past me, and the ice was broken. Within a few minutes I had met the mechanic and he was under the hood. Another few minutes and I had a hot tea, and was using the internet, another few minutes and a random blonde girl who spoke English was called in on her day off to help, And the Dealer manager was chatting away happily to me about the trip and where I was from. The customer service was extraordinary and they fixed the car and gave me spares within 3 hours. Of course, with Josh asleep in the back! All for $120 AUD. In Newcastle they would have kept my car a week and charged an arm and a leg! Thanks to Ford Russia for looking after us!
Back on the road we drove to the town of Bysck, this thriving metropolis was probably the most boring town in the whole of Russia. We just wanted a bar and a meal and could only find a supermarket which sold beer on tap. Just bring your own bottle. 50 cents a liter. Love it. But we wandered around and couldn’t find anything to do. The hotel the guys found was hosting a wedding and we chatted a while with the wedding photographer, Sergei. Of course. Very nice guy and offered to send me the photos of the ambulance he had taken. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had already taken hundreds. Bring it on.
The next day we drove through some of the most amazing countryside we had seen, and surprisingly, Siberia was incredible to view in the summer. Beautiful pined mountains, drifting down to frothy, fast, rivers, excellent holiday spots and Port Macquarie like landscapes. We were all stunned at how little we knew of Siberia, thinking it would be a desolate, frozen landscape and finding a place any of us could stay for summer holidays! We came across Russian canoeists, another car accident (no ambulance needed this time), perfect camping spots, and finally the Mongolian border. Unfortunately the border is closed on weekends and some teams had been there since Friday night. We met up with about 15 or so teams and swapped stories and cooked up a big feed. It was so cold that the food was cooling as we ate it and we decided to climb into the Ambo for a beer and chat. The temperature dropped to -6 that night and believe me we felt it!